Public health warns Hamilton case numbers are on track to be even higher in the 3rd wave

An epidemiologist with Hamilton's public health services says the city is reaching numbers of cases, hospitalizations, and outbreaks quicker than it has before.

Provincial booking tool doesn't work for mobile clinics, city says

There's also been a "steady increase" in COVID-19 variants in Hamilton, says public health, since the first one was recorded in January. (Bobby Hriistova/CBC)

Hamilton Public Health Services says the city is in its third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and warns that the community is on track to surpass the extent of the second wave. 

Public health epidemiologist Stephanie Hughes said there has already been 1,701 cases and 59 outbreaks declared, as well as 124 hospitalizations over the past month. That's notable, she said, because of the speed. 

"We were in month three of the pre-peak period of wave two — so in November of 2020 — when we reached these same case counts," she said in a board of health meeting on Monday. 

That means the third wave could be bigger, she said. 

Infections now are mainly due to direct contact with others, but also an "equal combination" of undetermined sources and outbreak activity.

There's also been a "steady increase" in COVID-19 variants since the first one was recorded in Hamilton on Jan. 19, 2021.

Most of these have come after the third wave began, which the city is marking as Feb. 17, 2021.

Case numbers rising

As of Friday, variants comprised greater than 30 per cent of newly reported Hamilton COVID-19 cases. That's about 20 per day, Hughes said. 

Hamilton is now seeing an average of 88 cases reported per day. The case counts at the peak of the second wave averaged at 137 a day, which Hughes said was "tenfold" compared to the first wave. 

She also said that compared to the second wave, the cases didn't dip as low before the third wave began.

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, the city's medical officer of health, said there will be further discussions with the province this week, with an eye on driving down the numbers. 

Hamilton sits in the red zone of the province's colour-coded framework for pandemic restrictions, which was recently changed over the weekend to give more leniency to restaurants. 

Richardson said case activity is increasing, with the incident rate sitting at over 100 cases per 100,000 people. The reproductive number is at 1.14, which Richardson said had been climbing but seems to have plateaued at this level. 

She said that public health hasn't been able to contact all close contacts within one day of identification because of the sheer number of people. Even more people are involved since the the city expanded its protocol to tackle the spread of COVID-19 variants in the community. Richardson said public health will be moving to a more "streamlined" contact approach.

The hospitals too are feeling COVID-19 pressures, Richardson said. Significant outbreaks are affecting Hamilton Health Sciences, she said, and hospitals are attempting to ensure other work (such as surgeries) still get done. Mental health-related and substance misuse-related emergency department visits are both up. 

As of Thursday, there have been 64,196 doses of the vaccine administered. As of Monday, Richardson said the city is most likely sitting at about 10 per cent of the eligible population having at least one dose. 

"We know vaccination is imperfect — it is very good, but it is not 100 per cent. So as we go forward and raise vaccination rates, it's so important that people continue to follow public health measures," she said. 

Long-term care and retirement home residents have been estimated at 100 per cent and 90 per cent vaccinated, as new residents do move in as time goes on, Richardson said. But staff coverage isn't as high, at 68 per cent and 38 per cent respectively. Essential caregivers are at 13 per cent. 

"Continuing to emphasize vaccine confidence will be an important part of our work throughout this vaccination program," she said. 

Though a high number of outbreaks has been declared so far, Hughes said there has been a shift in the magnitude after vaccine efforts. For example, long-term care outbreaks are averaging at one case as compared to 14 in the second wave.

While the vaccination coverage isn't perfect, Richardson said it's a much better situation. But case numbers continue to rise across the community. 

While residents at long-term care homes and retirement homes have been getting vaccinated, Richardson said that the vaccination rate among staff is lower. (Saira Peesker/CBC)

About 19,000 more people in Hamilton will be able to register for the vaccine as the province has expanded its roll out to include seniors aged 75 to 79. 

As the city moves forward into phase two of the roll out, Richardson said staff and residents of other high-risk congregate settings will be able to get vaccinated, along with those who have high-risk and at-risk chronic conditions, communities at greater risk, and those who can't work from home. 

Vaccine appointments at mobile units

While the province rolled out its online provincial booking system for vaccination appointments last week — and the city encouraged its use to lessen pressure on its phone line — public health says people looking to book with its mobile clinics won't actually be able to use it. 

Coun. Judi Partridge (Ward 15, Flamborough) said she's received a flood of phone calls from residents concerned about getting vaccinated who aren't able to go into Hamilton.

"They do not understand how to work this system to get their vaccination," she said.

Michelle Baird, the city's director of epidemiology, wellness and communicable disease control, said they're looking at implementing a separate online tool since the provincial one doesn't address this area.

But until the city gets an online version available, people have to call into book at those specific mobile clinic sites through the COVID-19 hotline at 905-974-9848, option 7.

Mobile clinics pop up at various sites in areas like Winona and Glanbrook to offer vaccine appointments, sometimes for a day or three, before they move locations. The mobile clinics are for priority populations and those aged 75 and over. 

Baird said at this point, the phone line hasn't had a very long wait time for callers. 

Coun. Arlene VanderBeek (Ward 13, Dundas) also expressed concern that people don't know when the clinics are coming. Now that the city knows the province's tool doesn't work with these clinics, Baird said public health will work on getting a schedule out in advance. 

Here are the dates for upcoming mobile pop-up clinics:

  • Stoney Creek Recreation Centre: March 25, 26, 27 and 28.
  • Bernie Morelli Recreation Centre: March 25, 26, 27, and 28.
  • Norman Pinky Lewis Recreation Centre: March 27 and 28.
  • Ryerson Recreation Centre: March 25 and 26.

Baird said the following week, public health will return to the Harry Howell Arena, Dundas Community Centre, Ancaster Rotary Club, Saltfleet Community Centre.